We recently met with Emily O’Connor, Shultzie Willows, and Ashley Thomasson; three amazing women behind Lydia Place, a local nonprofit that provides transitional and permanent housing, case management, advocacy, and education to those in need. Their vision is a community without homelessness.
Tell us about Lydia Place.
Emily: Lydia Place was started in 1989 by a group of women from Church Women United. They identified homeless women as a unique need in our community. They bought a property in town with their own resources, and started housing moms and kids. They didn’t have paid staff, but ran on volunteer power. They noticed that moms would stay for six months, then end up back on the streets. So they started providing support services in addition to housing.
In 2001, Lydia Place expanded through a partnership with the Bellingham Housing Authority (BHA). Today, Lydia Place has 79 housing units for clients through BHA. These are mostly 2–3 bedrooms for families with kids. It’s permanent housing; they’re able to stay there for as long as they need.
In 2008, we started the Rapid Re-housing Program in partnership with the Opportunity Council and Whatcom County. It offers really intensive case management support and a rental subsidy.
We’re also working with private sector landlords; anyone that is willing to take a chance on our clients. All together, we serve about 150 households on any given day. We’re with folks for usually 1–3 years. It’s a long term engagement and commitment.
What happens after that?
Emily: Folks are often times working on expanding employment opportunities and household income while they’re with us. Some folks are older, and waiting on SSI to come through. There are all sorts of different types of outcomes. We slowly reduce the number of times that we meet with them, and at the same time, they’re building community support for themselves.
What does it mean to do case management?
Ashley: Sometimes we network, connecting our clients to other resources. Sometimes we serve as a life coach, and help them process their experiences. The road to homelessness is often very painful. We help our clients to process that pain, move it to the past, and consider where they want to go next. We also support our clients in their parenting. We recently hired a Family Intervention Specialist to provide some one-on-one directed intervention.
Emily: We’re launching a new program, Parents as Teachers, that’s focused on the kids. We’re trying to break the cycle of poverty. We know that many of the kids in the households we’re serving are going to need support when they grow up; they just don’t have a lot of opportunities and their parents have limited resources.
Are you still affiliated with the local churches?
Emily: We are an independent 501(c)(3), so we don’t have a church affiliation, just a rich history of partnership with many of our local congregations.
What’s your connection to the Lighthouse Mission?
Emily: We collaborate and refer people to each other. We’re partner agencies in addressing certain segments of the population.
What do people not understand about Lydia Place that they should?
Ashley: We serve all different types of households—single men with children, two parent households, a household without kids. Through partnerships, we’ve been able to broaden our own organizational mission and really reach out to different family structures. Different programs allow us to serve different household structures. A big part of our heart is the kids. There are children in 100–150 of the families we’re serving at a given time.
Emily: We serve approximately 250 families every year. We’ve been able to take a big chunk out of the waiting list in Whatcom County. It really is a community effort. We’re not heavily funded by government contracts. We really depend on the generosity of our community—individuals, businesses, volunteer hours, thrift store donations, and more.
So, what do you need most?
Emily: Steady funding streams. Money is the easy answer, right; but it’s also the real answer. We have a housing crisis in Bellingham. It means serving folks is harder and more expensive than it ever has been. There aren’t any rentals, and the few available rentals are expensive. Things cost more and take longer. We have about 400 households on the waiting list for housing. We’re unfortunately seeing that increase. The resource issue is a real thing. Money, volunteers—it’s all important.
Addressing the bigger issue for Bellingham: is it more housing at affordable rental rates?
Ashley: There’s just not even enough units to go around. We have a vacancy rate lower than one percent right now.
Shultzie: Our strategic plan is shifting in this direction. It doesn’t sit well with us that there are so many families with kids that are homeless.
Emily: 27 percent of the homeless population is children. That is a scary, unacceptable number. We feel strongly about trying to get back to a reasonable place. We want a community that has the capacity to respond quickly. If a family has a medical crisis and they end up being evicted from their house, we want somewhere to put them. Right now, they end up sleeping in their car for 3–6 months while on a waiting list for housing.
Is there anything different about Whatcom County—do we have more or less of a problem?
Emily: We’re seeing an uptick in all segments of the homeless population. On a state level, Whatcom County is right in-line. We’re unique though because we’re a college town. We also have high rental prices and a very low vacancy rate. That is not normal.
And your store is downtown on State Street?
Shultzie: Yeah, Wise Buys. We also have four offices above Wise Buys to meet with clients. Wise Buys is awesome; it’s run entirely on volunteer power and has been for over 25 years. It’s an incredible resource to the community and to our clients who receive vouchers to shop there.
Emily: It’s a labor of love. We need volunteers!